All in a Day's Walk

A month-long slow food walking performance

Archive for orchard

Wassail! Drink Hail!

Landlord Matt in costume outside the Crown

It’s my penultimate day and the sun is shining, weakly. I’ve got what feels like a long walk ahead of me as I set off – possibly more perceptually than literally because I’m walking to Ledbury and back over the lip of the Marcle Ridge (which organic dairy farmer, local historian and general polymath Will Edwards told me they believe may have originally formed the England-Wales border, an older and much more easterly Offa’s Dyke than the one we think of now and which would have put at least half of what is now Herefordshire into Wales). The wooded ridge pouts broodingly on the farm’s eastern horizon and makes whatever lies beyond seem laboursome to reach.

I set off purposefully, scuttling across to Sollers Hope Church and up the road past Whittlebury Farm, a neat inversion of my first day’s walk. On the long diagonal slide of road that strokes the flank of the ridge I’m almost surprised to pass a solitary walker (I’ve not had many walking encounters this month). And then I’m dropping down over the other side and the flat expanse of fields opens out between me and the spire and sprawl of Ledbury. This is comparatively uninhabited country for Herefordshire – looking at the map as well as the landscape in front of me I’m struck by its blankness: the absence of roads, dwellings and farms in this stretch of countryside. The sleeping blue dragon of the Malvern Hills form my easterly horizon now, towards which I’m directly headed. It’s a strange flat trek across endless arable fields. Absentminded or brain-numbed, I lose the footpath and accidentally trespass past the dramatic silhouette of oasthouses in a farmyard – the owner reminds me – I shouldn’t be crossing. Then roads and more clay-heavy arable field crossings until I reach the industrial outskirts of Ledbury.

My destination is the Three Counties Cider Shop (not far from the iconic black-and-white market house) the town outlet for Once Upon a Tree cider, but which is also passionate about supporting other small, local cider producers from these adjacent counties (Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire). I’m greeted by the enthusiastic Sam Pardoe who explains the shop’s ethos, recommends and allows me to sample some of the excellent produce (including the cider on tap with which they will fill any receptacle; decadently I give him one of my empty Sigg water bottles for some Gwatkins Stoke Red to fuel the walk back) and then engages in lively conversation ranging from growing up locally on, as it happens, the UK’s then largest organic farm, to ethical meat production, to bartering and skills exchange as the way forward for local sustainable living.

Audio Track: Sam at Three Counties Cider Shop – perry-making and ice-wine dessert cider tasting

Audio Track: Sam at Three Counties Cider Shop – on supporting local artisan producers

Audio Track: Sam at Three Counties Cider Shop – on growing up on a fruit farm, bartering and meat

It’s nearly 3 pm by the time we’ve finished talking, and I’ve a long walk back over the ridge to Woolhope where I’m bound to the wassail at The Crown for 6 pm. I’ve arranged to meet my friends and don’t want to be late. Carrying rather a lot of cider and perry in my rucksack, I flounder back through the clay again, enjoying – as symbolic of this whole month’s Tolkeinesque ‘there and back again’ walking mission – the refinding of my footprints from the outward journey. This – Ledbury/Aylton/Kynaston – is orchard country and I also enjoy the neatness of this day, seeing the sunset through the apple trees while carrying cider to a wassail (for those not in the Herefordshire know, a pagan ritual of the cider-growing counties that traditionally takes place on or around Twelfth Night (whether that be 5th, 6th or 17th Jan) to drink, sing and dance the health of the apple trees). After nearly 3 hours of walking through the gloaming into darkness I arrive with 15 minutes to spare, to find Matt, the The Crown landlord tending the braziers in the car park and blacking his face with a cork (wassailers traditionally had a cork-blacked face so that they could not be recognised as ‘beggars’) ready for, what he explains articulately, is going to be a ‘very rustic, DIY wassail’:

Audio Track: Woolhope Wassail

It is indeed: hearty, life-affirming, community-building and magical; a wonderful celebration of what is good about local community and local food production.

We return to the pub – where they have a cider menu of over 30 local varieties here as well as local meats from adjacent farms – for more local food conversation and rambling chat:

Audio Track: Local Food at The Crown 

And then my friend Lucia and daughter Esme kindly take my cider-heavy rucksack (which they will deliver back to my doorstep on their way home to Hereford) clip my bike light to my hood and set me off walking, not entirely in a straight line (‘tacking’ as Matt would have it), through the orchards and across the fields for home, the stiles miraculously hoving into view in my headtorchlight as I now know the paths like the back of my hand).

From farm to orchard to town to wassail to pub to farm: all in a day’s walk… I am euphoric.

Whittlebury Farm Hall Court, Kynaston for free range eggs Cross country to Ledbury Lillands oast houses Free range children Ledbury Market Three Counties Cider Shop There and back again...2 Sunset over Lillands Lillands orchard Aylton Hamster baskets Turnip Lights of Ledbury from Marcle Ridge Woolhope The Crown Inn Crown landlord Matt prepares for Wassail Brazier at The Crown Crown's own very local perry Very local drinks 2
Matt in costume again..  Milling at The Crown Milling at The Crown 2 Fire at The Crown Esme with wassail torch  Wassail torches Lucia with wassail torch
Tracktivist sound recording One of the twelve fires (in a cardboard box) Wassail fires Apple tree apple tree we are here to wassail thee   Wassailers approach the tree Around the tree 1  Wassailed tree with toast in its branches, cider on its roots  Lucia and Esme in torchlight

Gwatkin's Yarlington Mill  Preparing for the last walk home Home by headtorchlight, navigating by luck

Christmas @ The Crown

Christmas at The Crown

It’s Christmas morning and I’m feeling very honoured to have been invited to join the Stanier family at The Crown Inn, Woolhope, where their traditional Christmas walk across the Marcle Ridge takes them for drinks and aperitifs. I walk over from the opposite direction, via Alfords Mill across flooded fields, which slows me down like a reverse (rural) travelator.

Walking to the Crown

There is a pint of their own (Once Upon a Tree) very fine Tumpy Ground waiting for me when I arrive, as well as bags-full of their own cold-stored eating apples and a bottle of perry. I could squeal with happiness. Their generosity is overwhelming and their interest in this project – the rules, the questions, what it’s revealing about the local food infrastructure (which their own amazing company is a vibrant and enlivening and positive part of) – is really rallying. Conversations range widely, but I mention my slowly emerging realisation that maybe I should eat meat. We talk a lot about their home-raised pigs, and the importance of knowing and honouring the animals we eat – not a piece of nameless, faceless protein packaged in plastic in a supermarket – even if that means that they ‘still deserve a name’.

I return home in the gloaming as the moon starts to appear

Moon appears at Alfords Mill

Wet footpath

in a considerably unstraighter line from the one I walked out with a rucksack full of precious, glorious apples, sit by the fire surrounded by them and eat five in quick succession. I am as happy as a (free-range) pig. A huge thank you Staniers!

Once Upon a Tree

Dabinett

Last night, on the winter solstice I walked in the gloaming, and then the moonlight, across the Marcle Ridge to Putley to sing carols around the tree at Dragon House. The Stanier family have been the mainstay of my social life during this project, their hospitality and generosity with their own amazing (and award-winning!) Once Upon a Tree cider and apple juice sustaining me calorifically as well as conversationally. Passionate about local food, rural community, sustainable living and re-connecting consumers with producers, the Staniers have run Dragon Orchard Cropsharers since 2001, one of the longest-running Community Supported Agriculture schemes (CSAs) in the UK. Cropsharers are invited to attend one open weekend each season, getting to spend time in the orchard as it changes through the year and receiving a proportion of its gifts each season: eating and cooking apples, juices, ciders, jams and chutneys. There is a shop at the orchard itself, and their Three Counties Cider shop in Ledbury which sells a range of local cider and other produce from Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire.

Dragon House is a beautiful place to be and always somewhere I associate with conviviality, hospitality and warmth. Tonight is no exception – as I emerge from  the dark, many people are gathering here to sing also, and there is the unmistakeable smell of mulled cider to greet our arrival. Norman Stanier gives me and the project a special introduction to the assembled crowd before we sing carols round the very tall two-storey tree…

Dragon House tree

and people share readings – poems, a scene from Pickwick papers – which Norman concludes with the December poem from their own 2009 book Orchard Days (poems by Charles Bennett inspired by a visit to the orchard one day each month for a year). It concludes with a beautiful image of Adam holding the ‘Christmas Apple’ out to Eve ‘who hangs it back on the tree,/and all of us grow more innocent/year on year’

Orchard Days

I also meet Fran from the Ledbury Food Group who tells me about the CPRE local food web mapping project. I realise this is what I’m doing – less usefully? – through this performance. We swap contacts to talk more…

Today, after a wonderful breakfast of fresh (cold-stored) apples (heaven after only apple juice), conversation, chutney-jar labelling and deliberating over the visitors’ book (every single overnight guest that has ever stayed must make an entry…)

Dragon House visitors' book

I walk home through the surrounding orchards of Putley (where the pics are from), streams of water running between the trees. I’m excited because I’ve been invited to attend the Cropsharers wassail in January to talk about this project and my experiences or conclusions, whatever they may be. Walking in daylight this time, I retrace my steps made in moonlight thinking of the Wassail pig from the January poem who ‘turns her attention/ to that big white apple in the sky/she’s looked at night after night.’

Be safe, be seen  Putley orchard 1

Putley orchard 2

Putley Court Church

SLOW flooding

Flooded footpath 1

It’s the eve of the winter solstice which this year will be at 11:12 tomorrow.  Ignoring the Mayan/world’s end predictions, I walk into the village to post some Christmas presents, through fields wetter than I’ve ever seen them, latticed by runnels and new rivers. Maybe this is the end of the world after all and this project is remarkably prescient but for a lost consonant: not so much slow food as slow flood.

Foolishly I decide to wear my wellies again which might keep my feet dry but have no grip. I fall twice before I’ve even reached the village and have almost made it to the shop when I slip coming off the slope into the rec ground and slide on my back, laughing, down the bank thick with wettest mud. I walk through the village like a swamp beast, much to the amusement of the Post Office queue where I stand, dripping mud onto the counter, making it worse in my pathetic attempts to clean it up, which only succeed in smearing it further.

I fell on my arse

The postmistress sympathetically wipes my parcel “It will cost more if you weigh it muddy…”. Then weighted down with mud and apple juice and cider I walk home like a cross child with my unbearably caked-in-mud arms held out stiffly to the sides gritting my teeth. I tell a friend about the fall-Post Office palaver and ask “Should I be doing a PhD in clowning?”. “Or drowning?” he responds.

River down Banky Field

Caplor lake 2

Flooded ditch

Flooded footpath 2

Wellies 2

Flooded stile

Fownhope rec ground pond flood

Fownhope rec ground pond flood 2

Fownhope stream

‘We ate with the seasons…’

Today Alison Parfitt (of the Wildland Research Institute amongst many other things!) joins me: my first ‘official’ guest to accompany me on a ‘performance’ walk. I haven’t planned very well for her visit and can’t decide where to go… When she arrives, we look at the map together. She would like to be a practical help in search of food and has brought along a large backpack for the purpose. I’d like to take her on an enjoyable walk that takes in some of the more scenic Herefordshire countryside. We settle on a walk over the Marcle Ridge through (a few) orchards to Westons, the cider producers where I hope I’ll be able to buy apple juice, and Much Marcle shop for eggs.

It’s still (literally) freezing. I still have no water in the caravan and every single surface outside – even the spiders’ webs – is covered in hoar frost: microscopic needles of crystalline blossom.

Alison

Alison’s lively enquiry into my practice is equally sharp but I’m glad of her presence and clarity – an antidote to the cold and the insidious slowness – helping to thaw my mind and bring into focus what I’m doing. As we walk, she asks me about the background to the project, which I start to describe as arising from my fascination both with simple notion of a day’s distance in a day’s time and what it could be used to draw attention to, to bring in to focus, to measure or calibrate. Then, how layered on to this came the notion of sustenance and what emerged was the concept of  ’embodied mapping: drawing a map with my feet of the area that sustains me nutritionally’ and the sadness that we can’t always lead the local life we aspire to when we live rurally, in the place where all this food is grown because the infrastructure is now missing. I’m thinking specifically about the wheat, oats and oilseed rape grown on the farm – I talk about the roaring dragon of the grain dryer which drives us [farm-dwellers] demented with its day-long droning whine throughout August only for the grain to be shipped away again and sold. To me this is ‘extraordinarily inaccessible food’ and I talk about the notion of loss which Alison then goes on to summarise far more articulately : ‘ yes, it’s a loss of understanding, a loss of connection,  a loss because we’re no longer in control of our food… we don’t even know where it goes and what happens to it. So it’s disempowering, really…’

With Sollers Hope church in sight, Alison asks. ‘So what are we performing?’… I respond cautiously ‘We’re performing slow activism and slow food in some kind of sliding together of lenses I think. The idea was that the structure of these walks – walking to find food, walking to the producers of food (even it’s not where I bought it I have to be able to walk to where it’s produced) was about drawing attention to what is there and what is there no longer, facilitating discussion, debate and discovery. And carrying that knowledge with me to each new encounter’.

I’m not feeling very articulate today, so I’m delighted when (as we are climbing steeply up the Marcle Ridge) she finds a way of clearly describing the essence of my practice – tracktivism as walking performance which foregrounds environmental concerns – far more clearly than my own fumbling attempts to liken it to bas-relief and the notion of removing something that obscures to allow what is there to emerge. No, she says helpfully, ‘it’s more subtle than that. It  [the environmental/political ‘truth(s)’]  is not obscured by something ‘other’ that needs removing, it’s the practice which reveals what IS there…’

I like this. As we walk on, I wonder what is left revealed in our wake.

—-

We walk into Much Marcle where I buy eggs (Kynaston) and juice (Aylton) from the village shop and record an interesting encounter with the shopkeeper, sharing his wonderful childhood reminiscences of rural life and local food in Oxfordshire where his father managed many gardens and allotments and they ‘ate with the seaons..’:

Audio Track: Much Marcle Shop

We then turn back on ourselves to call in at the Westons shop on the way home. Here  they stock the full range of Jus single variety apple juices from sweet Egremont Russett and Worcester Pearmain through medium Coxs, Katy and Discovery to the dry Bramley Seedling (my absolute favourite). I intend to journey to Aylton later this month to talk to the Skittery family. Their juices have been my emergency energy food this month in the absence of fresh apples which I’ve not been able to source locally. This in itself points to another type of loss – the loss of knowledge of how to think slowly in the longer term and store our produce to eat out of season…

Jus bottles Jus article